By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 12:28 AM
SAN FRANCISCO - The names in play are some of the greatest in the game's history: Koufax. Mathewson. Gibson. For a sport that venerates its history, they are names that resonate, from the halls of Cooperstown to the shores of San Francisco Bay. And they explain, better than any numbers or anecdotes, exactly what it is that we are dealing with right now in regards to Cliff Lee.
There are plenty of players in this World Series who have a chance to make history, attain legend status, achieve something unprecedented. Baseball presents that opportunity on a daily basis. But only one player has a chance to become known as the greatest of all time.
That player is Lee, the Texas Rangers' ace left-hander, who will start Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night against right-hander Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants. Lincecum is one of the great pitchers and great characters in baseball - a shaggy-haired imp who also happens to be the two-time defending National League Cy Young Award winner.
But he is no Lee. At this point, no one is. Lee's only peers are the ones named above, the ones enshrined in the Hall of Fame. And soon, even they might be surpassed as the best postseason pitchers in history.
With a lifetime postseason record of 7-0 and an ERA of 1.26, constructed exclusively in 2009 and 2010, Lee already has ensured a place among the all-time greats. No pitcher in baseball history has a better career postseason record, and among pitchers who have made at least five postseason starts, only Sandy Koufax (0.95) and Christy Mathewson (1.06) have lower ERAs.
Only Bob Gibson and Randy Johnson can match Lee's mark of five 10-strikeout games in the postseason. In baseball history, there have been eight postseason games in which a pitcher has struck out at least 10 while failing to issue a single walk, and Lee owns four of them. And that's not even counting his 13-strikeout, one-walk gem at Yankee Stadium in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
"What he did at Yankee Stadium," said Rangers outfielder Jeff Francoeur, "was the most impressive pitching performance I've ever seen. If I [could pick] one guy to pitch for me in the postseason, I'd want Cliff Lee."
None of it guarantees anything in this series, of course. The Giants don't have a batter who hit more than 26 homers or drove in more than 86 runs this season, and they have scored more than four runs only once in more than a month. But they are a resourceful, confident team that already this postseason has won games started by Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Tim Hudson.
Nor does any of it - not even a World Series championship - guarantee anything beyond these next 10 days or so. If you thought Lee was the focal point of this postseason, wait until the opening bell rings for baseball's free-agent market. He will be the prized target, and could command a contract of $150 million or more when it is all over.
With the New York Yankees - having seen firsthand over the past two postseasons the devastation he can bring - preparing to make a run at Lee, the Rangers will be playing this series with the understanding it may be the last they see of their ace in a Rangers uniform. They will attempt to keep him, of course, but it remains to be seen whether they can keep pace with the Yankees.
"We're not going into it with a pea shooter," joked new Rangers owner Chuck Greenberg about the Lee sweepstakes. "We can't control what the Yankees or any other team chooses to offer. We can only control our own decisions, and we know we are going to have to be aggressive financially. We are prepared to do that."
One Rangers executive handicapped the field thusly: "Sixty percent, he goes to the Yankees. Thirty-five percent, he signs back with us. Five percent, the field." The Rangers are hoping their proximity to Lee's Arkansas home, the familiarity with the organization and - especially - a World Series title would help sway him to their side, even if the money is not quite equal.
"The best thing we have going for us," the Rangers official said, "is that we're still playing."
Through no real fault of his own, Lee has earned a reputation as a mercenary of sorts. Have arm, will travel. He has played for four teams the past two seasons, beginning in Cleveland, then via trade to Philadelphia, Seattle and Texas. Part of the Phillies' reasoning of trading him before the 2010 season - despite the fact he had led them back to the 2009 World Series - was that they did not believe they could meet his demands to re-sign him.
Lee said this on Tuesday about the Phillies' loss to the Giants in the NLCS: "When a team gets rid of you, you kind of like seeing them lose."
Even for a Giants team used to facing one ace after another this postseason, Lee is another beast altogether - a power lefty who throws three different fastballs (a straight four-seamer, a sinking two-seamer and a "cut" fastball), plus a change-up, slider and slow curve - and throws them all for strikes, in any count. He has vintage Johan Santana stuff with vintage Greg Maddux command - all in the package of a workout freak who has the mental strength of a Navy Seal.
"A genius on the mound is a simple mind," said Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, Greg's brother. "That's one of his strengths. He never out-thinks himself."
Lee is also brutally honest. Handed a softball question Tuesday - "What can you say about a Giants lineup that doesn't have great power or great speed but seems to do just enough to get it done?" - Lee, rather than hitting it out of the park, grabbed the softball and threw it back in the face of the questioner.
"I think they're dangerous because they've got really good pitching," he said. "Yeah, you've got to give credit to the hitters for scoring those runs . . . but I think you give more credit to the pitching."
Certain postseasons are defined by one transcendent pitcher. Nineteen-sixty-seven will forever be the Bob Gibson World Series, as he started and won Games 1, 4 and 7 for St. Louis. Mathewson won Games 1, 3 and 5 of the 1905 World Series for the New York Giants (San Francisco's ancestors), each a complete game shutout. In 2001, Arizona's Curt Schilling went undefeated in six postseason starts (4-0) with a 1.12 ERA.
Lee is close to defining this postseason as his own. His next chance comes Wednesday night. Unless somebody stops him - and all that's left are the upstart Giants - Koufax, Gibson and the ghost of Mathewson are about to be overtaken.